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DEEP PEACE IN TECHNO-UTOPIA
A new film on Channel 4 disses the greens while dodging the issue of power.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th November 2010.
So Channel 4 has done it again. Over the past 20 years, it has
broadcast a series of polemics about the environment, and most of them
have been fiercely anti-green(1). On other issues Channel 4?s films
attack all sides. Not on the environment.
Last night it aired yet another polemic: What the Green Movement Got
Wrong. This one was presented by two people who still consider
themselves green: Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas. It?s not as rabid as
the other films. But, like its predecessors, it airs blatant
falsehoods about environmentalists and fits snugly into the corporate
agenda. The film is based on Brand?s book, Whole Earth Discipline(2).
He argues that greens, by failing to embrace the right technologies,
have impeded both environmental and social progress. Not everything he
says is wrong, but his account is infused with magical thinking, in
which technology is expected to solve all political and economic
problems. This view, now popular among green business consultants, is
sustained by ignoring the issue of power.
The film starts, for example, by blaming greens for the failure of
environmental policies. But, as a paper published in the journal
Environmental Politics shows, green movements have continued to grow,
reaching more people every year. What has changed is that a powerful
counter-movement, led by corporate-funded thinktanks, has waged war on
green policies(3). ?This counter-movement has been central to the
reversal of US support for environmental protection, both domestically
and internationally.? A similar shift has taken place in other
Many of the thinktanks were set up in the 1970s by businesses and
multi-millionaires seeking to limit employment rights and prevent the
distribution of wealth. After the collapse of Soviet communism, their
funders? attention switched from the red menace to the green menace.
This lobby had access to money and government that the greens could
only dream of. For environmentalists to blame each other for the lack
of progress is to betray a startling absence of context.
But Brand?s vision depends on forgetting the context. He maintains
that we will save the biosphere by adopting nuclear energy, GM crops
and geo-engineering, and paints a buoyant picture of a world running
like clockwork on these new technologies. Without a critique of power,
his techno-utopianism is pure fantasy. Nuclear electricity may indeed
be part of the solution, but the real climate challenge is not getting
into new technologies, but getting out of old ones. This means
confronting some of the world?s most powerful forces, a theme with no
place in Brand?s story.
Similarly, though the world has had food surpluses for many years,
almost a billion people are permanently hungry, while enough grain to
feed them several times over is given to animals and used to make
biofuels. This is not because technology is lacking, but because the
poor lack economic and political power. The film?s proposal ? that we
should switch to technologies which tend to be monopolised by large
conglomerates - could exacerbate this problem.
Brand?s attempts to avoid conflicts with power are understandable: he
founded a corporate consultancy called the Global Business Network(4).
But the ideology he has embraced has brought him closer to the
corporate lobby groups than he might be aware.
For example, the film maintains that, as a result of campaigning by
groups such as Greenpeace, the pesticide DDT was banned worldwide. The
result was that malaria took off in Africa, ?killing millions?*. Just
one problem: DDT for disease control wasn?t banned (if you don?t
believe me, read Annex B of the 2001 Stockholm Convention(5)) and
Greenpeace didn?t call for it to happen(6). The ban story was a myth
put about by lobbyists to discredit the greens(7). In the film,
Stewart Brand says he wants greens to admit it when they?re wrong. I
challenged him to admit that he got the DDT story wrong before the
film aired. I received no reply(8).
Brand and Lynas present themselves as heretics. But their convenient
fictions chime with the thinking of the new establishment:
corporations, thinktanks, neoliberal politicians. The true heretics
are those who remind us that neither social nor environmental progress
are possible unless power is confronted.
Environmentalism is not just about replacing one set of technologies
with another. Technological change is important, but it will protect
the biosphere only if we also tackle issues such as economic growth,
consumerism and corporate power. These are the challenges the green
movement asks us to address. These are the issues the film ignores.
*This refers to the pre-transmission version, whose transcript I had.
A couple of hours before the programme was broadcast, and after this
article went to press, the script was changed as a result of a
complaint by Greenpeace about its defamatory nature. The DDT passage
remained wrong in several respects however. Brand?s book maintains
that ?DDT was banned worldwide?, and that the ?ban? may have killed 20
2. Stewart Brand, 2010. Whole Earth Discipline. Atlantic Books, London.
3. Peter Jacques; Riley Dunlap; Mark Freeman, 2008. The organisation
of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism.
Environmental Politics, 17:3, 349-385. DOI: 10.1080/09644010802055576.
6. Greenpeace has repeatedly contacted the lobbyists circulating this
myth to explain that it didn?t call for a ban on DDT for
disease-control purposes, but they keep repeating it.
8. Email sent at 11.22am on 3rd November, and, to other addresses,
later that afternoon.